On Culture

Reality TV Takes a Wrong Turn, Says Robin Givhan

(By Ray Mickshaw -- Fox)
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By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 22, 2009

At a time when a little mind-numbing television might be just the thing to distract folks from the pain Wall Street has inflicted on their bank accounts, something distressing has happened in the world of high-class reality TV.

Wait! Can there be such a thing? Of course there can. All reality TV is not created equal.

It bears the same distinctions that separate Jelly Bellys from jelly beans, McDonald's from White Castle, Sprite from Mountain Dew. The difference is in the amount of sugar, the quality of the cheese. There is reality TV in which degradation is not only assured -- see "Girls Gone Wild" -- it is expected. But on shows such as "The Amazing Race," "American Idol" and "America's Next Top Model," one can safely assume there will be no paternity testing, no toothless protagonists and no scenes during which more than 50 percent of the dialogue has to be censored.

But this cadre of reality TV has taken a hit, just when cotton-candy entertainment would be especially satisfying. It's not that it has gone bad -- because in many respects it was always fabulously, irresistibly, rainy-Saturday-afternoon-marathon bad. But it has entered a new phase in which real reality, as opposed to the manufactured kind, has intruded. It has turned desperate. It has gotten creepy.

And at its worst, the disintegration of the fantasy has involved rioting. Stiletto heels were snapped during a mob rampage in midtown New York City last weekend where young women were waiting to audition for the upcoming cycle of "America's Next Top Model."

According to news reports, the line of waiting women was disorganized, impatient and desperate. For a show that thrives on the overwrought emotional state of the contestants, it comes as no surprise that the crowd may have been pushed into panic mode by the sight of a smoking car and the fear that it was about to explode. A stampede began; people were pushed and injured. Arrests were made.

A curse has befallen the best of trash television. It has been afflicted by hubris. It has succumbed to uninspired titillation. "Project Runway" has been sidelined by an ongoing lawsuit and as much as host Heidi Klum was photographed out and about during New York's Fashion Week and designer Michael Kors presented a delightful fall 2009 collection, they could not close the gaping hole left in prime time by the absence of "Project Runway." Contestant mentor/design guru Tim Gunn was left to his Tide commercials and PETA anti-fur campaign, and the week's fashion presentations by previous contestants felt like unsatisfying reruns.

On "Dancing With the Stars," the celebrities are dropping like flies with everything from knee strains to back injuries. Some of the understudies have so stretched the definition of "star" that anyone in a YouTube video could now qualify for the show.

But the moment when it became clear that something has gone terribly wrong occurred on last week's episode of "The Amazing Race." This has always been the connoisseur's favorite reality show -- or at least it's the one with the most Emmys to its credit. What distinguished the show -- in which teams of two race around the world for $1 million -- has been its unwillingness to sacrifice the dignity of the contestants for a cheap chuckle, the way in which it incorporated stories about different cultures into the game and the moments of enlightenment during which competitors learn something about themselves and their teammate from their fish-out-of-water escapades.

Last week, the contestants were in Siberia and one member of each team had to run a road race alongside a couple of Russian marathoners. Viewers were told the contestants would have to run the traditional way: in nothing but their underwear. Except the Russian runners wore track suits. Only the globetrotting competitors had to jog along snowy streets in thongs and boxers. It wasn't so much amusing as it was discomforting. Et tu, "Amazing Race"?

Under the best circumstances and with the finest intentions, there is something inherently discombobulating about putting non-actors in the glare of the spotlight and asking them to pretend that everything is normal. It can't be done, a fact proved way back in the early 1990s by MTV's "The Real World."

But there was always something sweet and even charming about the way in which these shows unfolded. They seemed to operate in a world in which people could be a reasonably respectable version of themselves: quirky, narcissistic, annoying, funny and appropriately vulnerable. They managed to muster a kind of faux reality that was entertaining without being embarrassing. These were reality shows that contestants wouldn't be completely mortified to have a future boss see. (As opposed to, say, a star turn on "Rock of Love" or "The Bachelor," because running an obstacle course to win a date with a guy is degrading whether the fella is a rock star or a single dad.)

If TV was going to inflict our neighbors upon us and if our neighbors were going to insist on revealing their dreams and insecurities on television, then these shows provided a guilty pleasure without furthering the decline of polite civilization.

Perhaps they can come back from the edge. Maybe "Project Runway" can resolve its legal problems. Perhaps the memory of rioting modelettes will fade. And hopefully, the contestants of "The Amazing Race" will never again be forced to remove their clothes. If not, reality show snobs will be left with "Top Chef," on which this past season's competitor Carla Hall preserved both her dignity and her integrity by arguing that the best food is made with a little bit of love.

And we'll always have "American Idol," where talent -- of a sort -- is mandatory and where it's almost impossible to resist the earnest charm of the contestants in their urgent quest for fame. The show has survived Taylor Hicks and Sanjaya Malakar. It has risen above Paula Abdul, her infected finger, loopy commentary, brushes with scandal and her own reality show.

If "American Idol" can live down the satanic blasphemy perpetrated by contestant Adam Lambert on "Ring of Fire" last week, it may be safe for another season. "American Idol" may be junk food, but sometimes a Happy Meal really hits the spot.

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